All right, one more time for the peanut gallery (very loud and very clear).
We do not say:
I’m so embarrassed about my heart condition
I’m ashamed about my cancer
I’d be mortified if anyone knew I get headaches
What’s the matter with her? She can’t handle a little stroke?
So why do we feel:
I’m so embarrassed that I have bipolar disorder
I’m ashamed that I have anxiety
I’d be mortified if anyone knew I get panic attacks
What’s the matter with me? I can’t handle major depression?
Yet that’s exactly what our society continues to do: shame and criticize and diminish the struggles of those with mental health issues. Force those people to go underground, to hide and lie about their conditions for fear of that shaming and criticism.
Honestly, I thought we were doing better. In the 15 years since I was diagnosed, and became active in the mental health community as an advocate, I’ve read and heard encouraging things. People of influence have spoken out about their conditions. In 2018 my show, This Is My Brave, featuring regular folks telling their true stories of mental illness, was presented to a sold-out audience in center city Philadelphia, and I’ll produce another one in 2022. Good, important conversations have been happening.
Now Simone Biles, one of the most gifted and hardest-working athletes in the world, has dropped out of the Tokyo Olympics because she is fighting crippling anxiety. Unable to perform at the level she expected of herself (and, by the way, the public fully expected of her), she stepped aside and let her teammates take over in the race for medals (and, at this writing, they have risen to the occasion beautifully).
And there has been a vicious backlash against her. “What’s brave about not being brave?” sniffed one clueless and nasty commentator. Would this have been his attitude if she dropped out due to a serious physical injury? I doubt it. There is an acceptable range of injuries and disabilities, and mental health issues and other “invisible” illnesses do not make the cut, very often. Instead, we are quick to label these people as weak, somehow lacking in character (or, I hate to say it as a church worker, but sometimes the reaction in religious communities is that his/her faith is deficient.)
By all accounts the world of top-level gymnastics is an incredible pressure cooker, also marred by sexual misconduct by trusted coaches. Is it any wonder that Biles struggled in that toxic environment?
I don’t know what it will take to completely de-stigmatize mental illness, but I know we have to keep trying. If for no one else, for our young people, many of whom are in great psychic pain they are afraid to share, and are turning to drugs and even suicide. So…
Let’s make honesty about mental illness normal, and risk-free.
I believe Simone Biles is brave, and that this is a teachable moment for America.
The question is, will we learn?